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Barbara O'Brien

The Receptive Mind

By October 9, 2012

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Before crashing ahead to the last of the Four Reliances, I'd like to share something I found on the Web yesterday. Here is a delightful quote from the scholar/theologian Karen Armstrong.

"Theology is-- or should be-- a species of poetry,which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way you might listen to a difficult piece of music... If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your own personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its inviolate holiness." ― Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

In Buddhism we don't usually speak of unique and separate identities, of course. I would have expressed that last part differently, something about getting out of the way so a teaching can reveal itself. Even so, what Armstrong says here fits nicely into our discussion of words and teachings.

New Zen students find themselves splashing around in a sea of verbiage that makes no sense. The chants, the texts, talks by the teachers -- it can all seem impenetrable. Unlike in other schools, they don't start you off with something to conceptualize and then walk you away from that. In Zen, it's more like being pitched into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim.

I was very fortunate that when I first began Zen training, I was in a state of mind to accept not understanding. I had faith -- as Buddhists use the word -- that there was something to all this stuff I didn't understand, and I had faith it would sort itself out eventually. Believe me, that's not my usual approach to anything.

I think sometimes people who are very bright, or at least very clever, quickly get frustrated with the texts. As Armstrong says, they seize texts to extort their meanings, and it doesn't work. They either walk away with a grotesque misunderstanding of the meaning, or they conclude the text is some kind of scam. There are a number of Buddhist websites I run into regularly that are maintained by "seize and extort" people as well as "personal agenda imposing" people.

Sometimes the meaning comes quickly. According to Zen legend, Master Huineng realized enlightenment when he first heard someone recite the Diamond Sutra. I know from my own experience that the right words at the right time can trigger an opening, even before one has an intellectual understanding of what the words may be saying.

Sometimes a bit of text may grab your attention, but the meaning is still hidden. It's always good to take this mystery to a teacher. But barring that, don't try to figure it out. Just keep the words close, and when you're ready something will bloom.

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